“Goodness is a competitive advantage in business,” Chade-Meng Tan, the famed mindfulness expert and official Jolly Good Fellow at Google, told attendees at a luncheon at USC today.
That sentiment rubs many skeptics the wrong way. Some “practical” people see this goodness-happiness-touchy-feely stuff as a distraction from the hard work of making a profit. At the same time, more idealistic people are suspicious of the idea that goodness would have any role to play in big business’ quest for money.
Why is mindfulness taking off?
The bottom line is that it helps the bottom line. Many alpha types at Google and other organizations now begin meetings with a few minutes of compassionate contemplation, in order to foster clearer, more creative and more productive thinking. And they incorporate it into the rest of their lives, believing it helps them bring their best to the things that matter most to them.
Meng’s appearance at USC (my alma mater and my primary employer) coincides with the university launching a major initiative to integrate mindfulness into the social and academic life of its community. The bulk of attendees at Meng’s talk were faculty members who have already begun incorporating mindfulness into their teaching.
I was once a skeptic of mindfulness myself, even while I sat on a committee trying to bring it to our university. I suppose my main “contribution” was to keep suggesting that we call it something other than mindfulness. After all, it seemed vague, and it seemed to imply that the only alternative would be, well, mindlessness. I also fretted about whether it could be seen as too “spiritual” to be incorporated into a secular organization.
Uh-Oh: Is Mindfulness a Religious Thing?
Mindfulness appears to represent a convergence of cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology and ancient meditative practices. Before Meng became Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, he was an engineer, focused on efficiency and productivity. He began to research the roles that happiness, emotional intelligence, compassion and meditation can play in improving business.
He then was able to motivate a Type-A, success-driven Google workforce to incorporate those elements into their own ambitious agendas. Meng is convinced that the largest and loftiest goals, such as global prosperity and tranquility, come as a byproduct of this process. A more immediate byproduct was his acclaimed book, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace).
Though his own faith tradition is Buddhist, he says that he tries to avoid bringing religion overtly into his mindfulness classes. The idea is to be as inclusive as possible, even to people outside any faith tradition.
Again, there are skeptics. In a recent New Republic piece, Josh Kovensky filed a complaint against the whole concept that Meng has helped popularize:
Besides the eerie similarity between “chief happiness officer” and concepts like “ministry of love” and “war on terror,” it represents an intrusion into our emotional lives that should not be permitted to any kind of authority figure—be it corporate or governmental—regardless of intention.
Clearly Kovensky needs to take a deep breath and chill out. Maybe meditate a little. The reality is that our emotional life and our intellectual, cognitive life and our social life are all interwoven inextricably. In fact, the most advanced brain-science research shows that our base emotions drive all the other processes. So sorry, but it’s not smart for a high-performing person or high-performing organization to simply factor out the emotional realm.
I’ve written several pieces over the past year examining how morale and kindness can boost the bottom line. There’s the example of Dignity CEO Lloyd Dean working alongside the Dalai Lama, while talking about how “Compassion and kindness aren’t expensive, but the yield is priceless.” There’s the research of people like John Gaspari and Daniel Siegel and Barbara Frederickson on the science of workplace morale. They all know that happy and emotionally intelligent workplaces deliver results that crabbier organizations can’t.
For some folks, mindfulness will take some getting used to. But get used to it nevertheless.